A network on wheels

To create plant mobility, take a new approach with portable cell towers.

By Dava Baumann, Rajant Technologies September 21, 2018

With the number of connected devices, sensors, and “smart” technologies on the rise, plant managers are in a unique position to modernize their working environments and gain a number of never-before accessible skills, including real-time visibility into the status of people, equipment, and operations of their organizations.

However, to support this new toolbox of skills and technologies, plants find themselves faced with another dilemma: the need for a robust, reliable, and mobile network that can keep up with these demands 24/7.

According to the 5G Infrastructure Public Private Partnership (5G PPP), a factory of the future must support five use case examples that represent a different subset of rigorous requirements along supply chain and manufacturing networks:

1. Time-critical process optimization inside a factory. This will support zero-defect manufacturing, increased efficiencies and worker satisfaction and safety. This use case requires extremely low network latency, as well as the integration of sensor technologies like 3-D scanning, adoption of wearables, and collaborative robots in closed-loop control systems.

2. Non-time-critical optimizations inside factory. This will increase flexibility and sustainability within a factory as well as allow a plant to manage stock more effectively. Because of rugged industrial environments and large pieces of equipment that create line-of-sight issues, indoor coverage and high availability are key requirements here.

3. Remote maintenance and control, which will optimize the cost of operation while increasing uptime. This use case integrates 3-D virtual reality, requiring a network with bandwidth to facilitate video-supported remote maintenance from anywhere in the world.

4. Seamless intra-/inter-enterprise communication. This will allow the monitoring of assets distributed in larger areas, and improve coordination of cross-value-chain activities and logistics flow optimization. This will require flexible, reliable, and seamless connectivity across different access technologies, as well as the support for mobility.

5. Connected goods, which will allow factories to implement new value-added services supported by real-time data collected during the complete lifetime of a product. This use case requires communications platforms that support autonomy.

However, many manufacturers and plant operators face challenges in these areas, and are forced to watch productivity slow to a halt as cellular and traditional networks struggle to keep up with dynamic new applications. Connectivity to cell towers, which can be few and far between in the remote areas where plants often are located, can be further hindered by factors like distance, rugged terrain, or extreme weather conditions. Reliable connectivity issues can leave operators feeling trapped and their assets “stranded” without connectivity, limiting productivity and leaving plants in the lurch.

What plants need in this day and age is a completely mobile network-a “cell tower on wheels” that can move with and become one with a plant.

Mobility in a plant

Manufacturing plants don’t always have enough existing cell towers (or any towers at all) located within their range, and it can take an enormous effort to have one installed in a new location.

But what if, instead of being statically tied to one site, the cell tower had the ability to get up and drive directly to the place you needed it, moving with ease to rapidly expand coverage to that area across the entire fleet and area of operation?

These cell towers on wheels also could spread as far and wide as a site requires, flexibly augmenting or creating infrastructure ad hoc to provide ubiquitous coverage across a plant – no matter how large or small it is. And as more connected people, devices, and machines join a plant’s operations, new cell towers would simply roll in to provide the increased network support required, as well as work with the nodes already installed on the numerous moving and static assets in a plant.

With the roving connectivity of a cell tower on wheels, the many moving assets that make up an industrial facility-from equipment to vehicles to people-could take robust connectivity with them as they traveled. The tower would simply follow along, dodging line-of-sight issues caused by large equipment, and seamlessly connecting hot zones to allow operators to maintain unwavering connectivity to, communications with, and control over all the “things” that power more efficient and productive operations.

Giving the network “wheels” means that even outer-edge communications would be completely reliable, providing a previously impossible direct connection to a control center. Wireless mesh networks are ideal for this type of configuration across a manufacturing plant because of their inherent mobility, flexibility of scale, and reliability.

Wireless mesh networks

Industrial operators can kick-start their organization’s journey to digitization by deploying a kinetic mesh network topology. This type of network allows multiple nodes to connect, broaden and strengthen the network where necessary.

With the nodes essentially acting as compact, durable, transportable, mini cell towers, virtually anything in the organization’s infrastructure can be turned into networking equipment.

Compared with a regular cellular network, which has limited cross communication, a kinetic mesh network can communicate peer-to-peer seamlessly, via numerous instantaneous connections, forming an adaptable, dynamic network that has the ability to provide reliable wide-range communications practically anywhere. Nodes easily can integrate with existing infrastructure to rapidly extend coverage, communicating with and controlling roaming assets anywhere they move across a plant or site.

Line-of-sight issues cease to be a problem as well. If terrain or moving assets interrupt a cell tower’s line of sight, connectivity can be obstructed with no way around it. Kinetic mesh nodes are mobile, generating more lines of sight, and the mesh networking technology dynamically selects the fastest path from hundreds of potential options to automatically route around interference, signal blockage, etc., without losing a beat.

Cell towers must break connectivity to make handoffs, which creates opportunities for data loss. A kinetic mesh network features node- and frequency-level redundancy, with nodes making multiple simultaneous connections, so no connections must be broken for new ones to be made-keeping critical plant data intact.

The future of manufacturing

Building a reliable network starts with reliable hardware, and with the introduction of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) applications, manufacturers need more from their networks-and they need it now.

From rising bandwidth demands to an increase of devices on the network, the need for unwavering communications are at an all-time high. Traditional fixed or wireless networks simply don’t have the bandwidth, mobility, or reliability to support the use cases that 5G PPP states are essential in the factory of the future.

The potential benefits that wireless mesh networks bring when it comes to digitizing industrial operations are limitless, and due to the nature of the mesh network topology, there are numerous ways it can be used to transform a factory’s daily operations. Without the need to trade off one feature for another, kinetic mesh networks provide unwavering bandwidth at high-speed, complete mobility, mission-critical reliability, and scalability-a future-ready network.

Dava Baumann is an IIoT strategist and executive vice president of global marketing for Rajant. Baumann can be reached at dbaumann@rajant.com.